Venice, We Have a Problem

OK, so The Merchant of Venice is listed as a comedy.

Now, as we’ve talked about this before in the Project, comedy for the Elizabethans means something quite different than what it means to us today. Comedy is less about humor and laughs, and more about the resolution of the story. While a tragedy ends with a fall from heights (social, economic, political) and usually death, comedy ends with a marriage:

  • four couples in The Comedy of Errors
  • Kate and Petruchio (and two other couples) in The Taming of the Shrew
  • two couples in The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • three couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

yeah, I know… not so much the case in Love’s Labor’s Lost… but remember, we really didn’t think much of that ending

And while technically, this play, too, has a number of couplings (Bassanio/Portia, Gratiano/Nerissa, and Lorenzo/Jessica) AND throws in women disguised as men for good measure, it feels a whole lot darker.

Back in 1896, F. S. Boas created the term “problem play” in his study Shakespeare and his Predecessors, and the term fits Merchant just about perfectly…

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